Erika Wennerstrom didn't have the most auspicious start to her rock 'n' roll career. Her father bought her an acoustic guitar for Christmas when she was just 16, but as she was learning to play, she grew frustrated by how painful it was to press down on the strings and gave up before she could form the right calluses.
Two years later, when the Dayton, Ohio, native, then a high school dropout, was looking for some sort of creative outlet, she decided to pick up the guitar.
"I'm still not sure I know any real chords," Wennerstrom, now 31, said in her throaty, Midwestern drawl. "I still tell people I don't really know how to play guitar."
If her musical proficiency is in doubt -- and let it be noted that it's Wennerstrom doing the doubting -- her musical instincts are not. Her band, the Heartless Bastards, has had the good fortune to ride the whirlwind that is Wennerstrom's low and husky voice. Combined with her ability to craft throbbing hooks, it has lifted the Cincinnati-spawned act to the level of top regional band, a label the group is likely to transcend with its latest album, "The Mountain," out this week.
On an album where almost every track sounds like an anthem about change, whether in the wide-eyed confusion of "Out at Sea" or the stripped-down bluegrass of "Had to Go," it's a sonic and emotional evolution that mirrors Wennerstrom's own.
After the breakup of her 9 1/2 -year relationship with the band's then-bassist, Mike Lamping, in November 2007, Wennerstrom packed her bags for Austin, Texas, propelled by the city's throw-a-rock-and-you'll-hit-a-musician indie scene, with a plan to work with producer Mike McCarthy. She settled into the top floor of a three-story house on Austin's east side, forcing herself to work on only one song at a time.
"I had some of the melodies and things before I moved down" to Austin, she said. "I did probably fully form the words and kind of fully finish everything when I was down there. Sometimes I'll carry a melody in my head for years, but when it comes to sitting down and really asking, 'What am I trying to say here?' and putting it to the melody, it takes me a long time."
Six months later she walked into the studio with McCarthy -- who's known for his work on . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, Patty Griffin and Spoon -- who brought in a slew of top local and session musicians for "The Mountain."
"I had really, really adamantly wanted to find people or friends to play on the album, but Mike, and I think he was right, said I should finish writing the songs instead of trying to go around playing with all kinds of people all over town," Wennerstrom said. "And because he felt he could find people that would be perfect for the album, I just kind of crossed my fingers and hoped that it would work out."
"To her credit, I think the songs are amazing," McCarthy said. "As far as the little things like instrumentation, I figured those would all be taken care of if she just but put her best foot forward, musically and lyrically."
McCarthy expanded the lean instrumentation of "Stairs and Elevators" (2004) and "All This Time" (2006), adding mandolin, banjo and strings to "The Mountain's" 11 tracks. He overdubbed timpani rolls on "Out at Sea" and played mandolin on "Wide Awake," which buries a delicate Eastern harmony under a delay-heavy guitar hook. "If you only listen to the left speaker and don't listen to Erika's guitar part, it sounds like it's somewhere between Indian and Arabic music," McCarthy said. "I just thought her melody was kind of like that, and I wanted to have a mandolin assimilating that sound."
McCarthy brought in Austin local Ricky Jackson to play pedal steel as a counterpoint to the title cut's swampy guitar, but neither wrote out the parts. Instead, they "head-charted," section by section. "I call it 'head-charting' when you work out the parts on the fly. It's a crazy stream-of-consciousness way to record, but it's a good way to do things for me because it keeps things fresh and unique," McCarthy said.
It transformed Wennerstrom's perceptions as well. "I would never have pictured pedal steel. He was like, 'I really think it'll sound different and we should try this.' And I ended up loving it," she said.